I’m excited to be reviewing one of the first books from a publisher that just set up shop in 2012: New Vessel Press (you can check out their webpage here). Their mission is to publish books in translation from all over the world, and I think they’re already doing an excellent job for bringing us Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra (Salvatierra, 2008; tr. from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, 2013).
When he was nine years old, Juan Salvatierra was in an accident and never spoke again. The only way the family could get him to communicate with them was through drawings, so that’s what he did. Then, at the age of twenty, he began a monumental project for no one but himself. For the next sixty years, until he died at the age of 81, he painted “what is essentially a diary in images [in which] he himself does not figure.” Every day he painted on one of his long canvases, and at the end of the year he’d date the canvas and roll it up, never seeming to care about their fate. The next year would begin on a new canvas, but it was an otherwise seamless transition.
At his death, his two sons, Miguel and Aldo, return to deal with what their father left behind, including the more than sixty scrolls that, if you lined them up, spread across more than four kilometers, a life flowing by “like a river.” We learn in the first of the sixty-one brief sections that
Rivers run through the entire story. The family lives by a river that marks the Argentinian border with Uruguay, in which Salvatierra’s only daughter drowned many years ago. The painting is like a river. Time and the passage of life is like a river. Though the image is there consistently, it doesn’t overwhelm. It’s peaceful and contemplative; really, it’s like sitting down and listening to a river.
There is an air of melancholy as well. Our narrator, Miguel, takes us back and forth in time, telling us about his father but also about himself, about his own attempts to understand his father while his father was alive. Now that all he has is a giant painting, he finds himself drawn into it for the first time.
In particular, he looks for evidence of his sister, Estela, who drowned in the river years ago. His memory of her has faded, and even the static pictures of her that he still possesses just don’t evoke much. But, the painting does:
I was nine when Estela died, and have only vague memories of her as someone playing in the house or who annoyed mom because she wouldn’t eat. I have two black-and-white photos of her. She is always the same, frozen in the instant, and I’ve looked at them so often they mean hardly anything to me now. That was why I was so moved to see her painted in color and with that ability Salvatierra had to picture the things he loved in a few brushstrokes, making them come to life. His images slide, move on, won’t stay still. They flow towards their own end, their dissolution in the landscape.
The missing year in the title is 1961. As Miguel and Aldo sift through the scrolls, they realize that one is missing, the one for 1961. While the book keeps going back and forth in time, it pleasantly recasts the past as Miguel tries to figure out what happened to the painting, why it is missing, what it means for him and his family. It’s a moving portrait of someone trying to preserve and find a life.